WORLD WAR WOKE:
OR HOW THE WORD “WOKE” WAS WEAPONIZED
There’s a reason why proverbs such as “sticks and stones” are popular mostly among children: most adults are aware that words are only ever meaningless until they aren’t. Words can have power. It’s why billions of people hang onto every word in religious texts. It’s also the reason why whole wars have been waged over the right to write history. Revolutions and civil rights movements were born when words such as "justice" and "freedom" did not have equal meanings for all. This also means that, for better or worse, words can be malleable. It is the reason why culture wars so often center around who gets to define them.
Currently, there is no better example of a word finding itself in such a situation than the word “woke.” In 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added the word to its listing, defining it as being “aware of social and political issues, especially racism” However their later addendum to this definition speaks volumes. It follows “This word is often used in a disapproving way by people who think that some other people are too easily upset about these issues” That they would deem this addition necessary is a testament to the efforts made by those seeking to redefine it.
This raises a few necessary questions. Why would there be pushback to such a seemingly simple concept? And how widespread is that pushback? As it turns out, very. Conservative politicians are waging war on what they call "wokeness" as central themes of their campaigns from the US to Canada, the UK to France, South Africa to Brazil, and beyond. Concurrently, conservative writers spill ink warning of “woke” dangers. And their respective followers, made fearful, are heeding them. As such, many citizens across the world have become outraged not at the thought of injustice, but rather at the thought of fellow citizens acting “too woke” in response. The journey of the word from the call to action by Black people known as “Stay woke” to a cudgel wielded by right-wingers worldwide tells a story that should worry any who care about the promise of equality. But how exactly did a word defined by the dictionary as simply being “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination” end up predominantly used as a pejorative? Before we can fully understand how we got here, we must first take a look back, much further back than most would think.
THE CREATION OF WOKE
Before the term woke became the cultural lightning rod it is now, it was something much different, a clarion call for racial justice whose roots can be traced back to the early 20th century. The use of “waking up” as a method of social awareness first originated with Jamaican political activist and philosopher Marcus Garvey in 1923 when a collection of his writings included “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!,” a rallying cry for any Black person around the world who had been lulled into accepting their suffering as second class citizens. A little over a decade later, that rallying cry evolved in the form of a 1938 protest song “Scottsboro Boys” by blues singer Lead Belly (aka Luddie Ledbetter). The song was named after a group of Black teenagers in Alabama who were falsely accused of raping a white woman. “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open,” the singer said. It is the first known use of the saying in the form it would later be popularized as. Those two points in history later converged in a 1971 play by Barry Beckham named “Garvey Lives!” which featured the line “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon’ help him wake up other black folk.”
Its use as both watchword and warning continued throughout the years, almost exclusively among Black communities. At the time, the closest contact the term had had with mainstream (read: white) audiences was in a 1962 New York Times article entitled “If you’re woke, you dig it” by a Black author named William Melvin Kelley. In it, Kelley describes not only Black people’s natural flair for the creation of popular slang, but also Black people’s awareness that our culture is constantly at risk of appropriation, noting that the then-widespread white beatnik culture did not create what it presented as its own language, but rather appropriated words such as “cool” and “dig” from Black jazz musicians. “A few Negroes guard the idiom so fervently they will consciously invent a new term as soon as they hear the existing one coming from a white’s lips,” Kelley explained.
In the 2000s, a new generation would be introduced to the term “woke” via songs such as Erykah Badu’s “Master Teacher” and later Childish Gambino’s “RedBone,” (which was featured in the box office hit “Get Out”) but it would be the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the subsequent protests, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement which would propel the word towards global awareness. However, that popularity would come with a price, and unfortunately for the word’s intended purpose, William Melvin Kelley’s warnings of appropriation, written almost 60 years prior, would prove themselves prophetic.
THE GENTRIFICATION OF WOKE
Can a word be gentrified? That all depends on how you define the word “gentrification.” Its official definition defines it as “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in [...] typically displacing current inhabitants in the process” If you share that definition and consider the next part of woke's history, the parallels become much harder to deny.
With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement came a resurgence of activism, especially on college campuses, and its language, namely the word “woke” But the more varied the people who identified as woke became, the more varied its definition became as well, a process which was accelerated by the advent of intersectionality. What was once strictly used in response to the plight of Black people began to be deployed in more generalized settings with more generalized purposes. This led to the word gaining newfound popularity amongst a demographic that seldom used it before: white liberals.
However, as with many previous Black expressions which entered the white lexicon, “woke” quickly found itself diluted, misused, and commodified. Case in point: a 2016 MTV news article by a white woman declared “It's time to retire some of your fave terms (I'm looking at you "on fleek," "preach" and "squad") and instead, familiarize yourselves with some new slang” The word woke had officially gone from a Black cry for liberation to the middle of a white MTV writer’s top 10 cool new words to use. And although the lists of words dismissed and proposed in this article were composed completely of Black slang, it included no mention of Black people, an accurate reflection of the path “woke” was on.
This pattern of exclusion continued well beyond the use of woke as simply slang, even in terms of so-called progressivism and would-be activism, Black people increasingly became an afterthought for the word’s white adopters. For example, a 2017 entertainment review’s headline read “Relax! The New ‘Will and Grace’ Is Woke, Anti-Trump, and Still Funny” despite the show featuring an all-white cast. In another instance, after the 2017 Women’s March, lists began popping up of the most “woke and hilarious” signs spotted at the rally. It is not only worth noting the previously mentioned presence of Black language in the absence of Black people, but also the glib manner in which it was suddenly being deployed, even in the context of activism.
The flippant white use of woke only facilitated its commodification. Before long, the word appeared on hallmark cards, t-shirts, and the like, often in the form of quips and witticisms. So it’s no surprise that the cooptation of the word - corporate or otherwise - was promptly parodied by SNL in a 2017 skit entitled “Levi’s wokes” in which they mocked corporate attempts at cashing in on social awareness.
By 2018, the gentrification of woke was nearly complete. And the Black people who hadn’t already been pushed out and turned off from using the word were being urged by other Black people to abandon it. "[The word woke] was something that we were taking seriously and then it kind of transformed into something ironic and then it became a meme and then it became a trademark" noted writer Elijah C Watson. Another Black writer, Sam Sanders, went further in an article for NPR. “Let's promise to leave a word that's past its prime in 2018. It's time to put woke to sleep”
Rather than being put to sleep, woke would find itself in what one could consider a waking nightmare. With the word hollowed out by opportunists and all but abandoned by its creators, it was defenseless against what would come next: A sweeping and cynical campaign to toxify the word led by its newest adopters, who also just happened to be some of the very people the word was initially used to warn about: white conservatives.
THE WEAPONIZATION OF WOKE
The political conflicts between liberals and conservatives have always played out parallel to their culture wars. And yet, at the same time, they’ve always been inextricably intertwined, as culture informs policy and vice versa. This is a concept that the right has historically been more successful at manipulating than the left. After all, conservatism is explicitly predicated on the preservation of the status quo, making fear of change an effective tool for riling up their base. So it’s no surprise that those fears are not only nurtured but so often manufactured for the sake of political and/or financial gain. This practice is so common that there’s even a term for it known as “throwing red meat to the base” And presently, there is no piece of “red meat” more capable of turning the conservative base rabid than the word “woke”
Considering their trajectories, the collision between the word woke and conservatism - along with the subsequent co-optation of the former by the latter - was, in many ways, inevitable. Culturally speaking, conservatives now more than ever see what they consider progressive ideas as gaining too much ground; same-sex marriage is now widely accepted, the murder of George Floyd sparked a worldwide conversation about racism, and gender equality in the workplace is now openly being debated instead of ignored. But if none of these things can reasonably be viewed as threats, why does villainizing them remain central to the conservative strategy? Partly because the creation of imaginary enemies allows for the creation of imaginary victories, especially in politics.
In America, Florida has served as a veritable testing ground to see how “anti-woke” stances can make the leap from language to legislation. The first successful test came with the banning of so-called “Critical Race Theory” from classrooms, despite the broad (and likely intentional) deviation from CRT’s true definition. In reality, CRT is an academic examination of how laws can impact races differently. As a result, it is only available as a course in law schools. However, under this sweeping bill, ANY discussion of race or America’s racist history that could lead an individual (read: white person) to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” is now banned from ALL public classrooms in Florida. Bills mimicking this language are now being explored in 32 other states. This law effectively bans any discussion among students of any age about the history of slavery in America and its effects. In other words, exactly what the term “woke” was meant to warn about. So it’s no wonder that Florida governor Ron Desantis named it the “Stop WOKE act”
He even followed this by introducing the “Don’t say gay” bill which forbids any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to grade 3. Immediately after being signed into law, teachers began being fired for merely mentioning that they were married to someone of the same sex. This bill is now potentially being copied by 19 other Republican-led states.
Meanwhile, much like how “anti-woke” laws are being emulated across the US, the “anti-woke” strategy has crossed borders and gone international. In Quebec, Francois Legault recently won his election in a landslide after campaigning against his opponents with accusations of going woke. Taking his derogatory use of the word even further, he described any who believe that systemic racism exists in Quebec as “wokes” for “wanting to make us feel guilty for defending the Quebec nation” Considering the favorable outcome of the election for Legault, it’s no surprise that Pierre Polievre, the newly-elected leader of the Canadian conservative party, is now promising to run against “wokeness” in the next federal election.
With the weaponization of the word proving itself to be a successful political tool, it wasn’t long before its usage crossed the pond. As the culture wars rage throughout Europe, from Marine Lepen’s near victory in France, Liz Struss’ current rule in England, to far-right candidate Georgia Meloni’s electoral victory in Italy, the battle against “wokeness” has remained a central theme. It has even culminated in a crossover between culture wars and veritable war, as Putin announced in a speech that his invasion of Ukraine should be viewed as a repudiation of the “woke” west.
Appropriation is often inevitable and sometimes even inadvertent, but in the case of the word woke, it is more accurately insidious. What happened and is still happening here is an example of how hierarchies are maintained: stifling a conversation to prevent the demands it may lead to from ever being made, let alone met. There are few better ways to sabotage a revolution than by redefining, and therefore seizing its language. And such is what happens when words threaten the status quo. One could be tempted to think that words don’t matter. However, whoever controls the language controls the conversation, and whoever controls the conversation controls its outcome. Stay woke.